The Making of Georges Méliès
How an early 20th-century movie magician brought us to the moon and then fell back to earth.
You’ve heard of Méliès the prestidigitator
Of monsters and devils the filmic creator
Inventor of fantasies, cinema’s père,
Who charmed the machine of the brothers Lumière.
This is the first of 19 stanzas in a wonderful narrative poem written by Inez Hedges and published (in both English and Italian) in the 1991 book A Trip To The Movies: Georges Méliès Filmmaker and Magician (1861-1938). Thanks to the release of Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, more people have heard of Georges Méliès in the past few months than had in at least 50 years. But just who was he, and why was big-budget Hollywood paying such grand tribute to him a century later? Hedges’ words can launch us on a voyage to find out.
Méliès was a magician (a quick-fingered prestidigitator, if you will) who became a “filmic creator” very early in the history of movie-making. He was born to be a shoemaker, however, following his father’s trade. As a young man, he was sent from Paris to London to make enough contacts and learn enough English to help open a branch of the family business there. This expansion never occurred. A more devoted language learner might have complemented his daytime clerkships with evenings practicing English comprehension at new Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, or other verbal-dependent performances. Instead, Méliès became enthralled with the more visual art of the stage magician.
In 1885, he returned to Paris and devoted himself to practicing illusionism. A new wife with a large dowry, Eugénie Grenin, helped facilitate this pursuit, and with the sale of his share of the family business he was able to purchase the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in 1888. Over the next several years, Méliès increased attendance at this flagging venue, named for France’s most famous magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, by modernizing the illusions, hosting some of the era’s top performers, and introducing projections of magic lantern slides to his presentations.
On December 28, 1895, the brother inventors Auguste and Louis Lumière showed a program of ten films at the Grand Café in Paris. Each of these films was presented as if a documentary view of less than a minute of everyday life in France, although in fact the single-shot scenes possessed staged elements as well, whether obvious (the trap set for a participant in The Sprinkler Sprinkled) or behind-the-scenes (for Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, the workers were instructed to exit en masse precisely for the purpose of being filmed.) The Grand Café screening was not, as is routinely cited, the first screening of films for a paying audience, although it may have been the first in France. This founding myth may persist because a figure as notable as Georges Méliès was present at the screening, and immediately recognized the utility of film cameras and projectors for his theater, offering to buy the technology on the spot.
Méliès accidentally discovered that if he stopped the film from running through his camera and then restarted it, an illusion of transformation could be created. These were what would eventually be called substitution edits, or jump-cuts, and if Méliès wasn’t the first to employ editing to “transform real time into a magical film time,” as Anne Friedberg puts it, he was the first to do it so consistently, effectively, and influentially.
The Lumières refused the Méliès bid and all others, but the magician was undeterred. He returned to London to purchase a similar early film projector from another pioneer named R.W. Paul. He reverse-engineered a camera from that device and began shooting his own brief movies the following May, beginning with a knock-off of the Lumières’ film Card Party, entitled Playing Cards. He had indeed “charmed” the brothers’ machine.
Of the hundred or so films Méliès released during his first year of movie-making, only a handful are known to survive. These few demonstrate an impressive range of pioneering techniques and genres. Post No Bills and On the Roof are early slapstick comedies. The Vanishing Lady takes the form of a magic act, performed for the camera by Méliès on his future second wife Jeanne D’Alcy. Two early supernatural-themed films Le Manoir du Diable and Le Château Hanté are both frequently translated in English as The Haunted Castle. And his first known astronomical-themed film, A Nightmare, comes from this period as well. A glance at some of the titles of lost (or shall we optimistically say, “not yet found”) early Méliès films suggests even more diversity. Watering the Flowers and The Arrival of a Train at Vincennes Station sound like simple remakes of Lumière actualities, but titles like Rescue on the River, Conjuror Making Ten Hats in Sixty Seconds, A Badly Managed Hotel, and Battle Of Confetti are tantalizingly evocative. Check your attic!
It was during this first year of film experimentation that Georges Méliès built a glass-walled studio just outside Paris, in Montreuil, the first film production studio in Europe. He also discovered his first special effect. At first Méliès set his camera in open-air environments, including multiple shoots at Paris’s Place de l’Opéra. According to legend, it was while filming traffic here that Méliès accidentally discovered that if he stopped the film from running through his camera and then restarted it, an illusion of transformation could be created. These were what would eventually be called substitution edits, or jump-cuts, and if Méliès wasn’t the first to employ editing to “transform real time into a magical film time,” as Anne Friedberg puts it, he was the first to do it so consistently, effectively, and influentially.
What we know of Méliès’s production over the next few years is just a little less incomplete.
Read more in Part Two of this piece, “The Remaking of Georges Méliès.”